Witnessing tragedy

Religion = cult + followers + time. This is particularly obvious in the case of the Mormon church, which has enough of a profile to be considered ‘reasonable’, until you start actually reading about it1, and also Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the news today for the usual reason:

A young mother has died after giving birth to twins, amid claims that she had refused a blood transfusion because of her faith.

I heard tell of claims she would have died anyway, but it’s immaterial – the issue comes up often enough for it to be a problem in non-secular societies.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with avoiding any notion of Christmas, evangelising non-stop, and awaiting the imminent armageddon after which they, Jesus and 144,000 friends will be all that remains of the human race, take certain parts of the Bible literally. One such sentence comes from Acts 15:29:

You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.

God, as ever, considers this kind of arbitrary thing very important for reasons never elaborated. Meat of strangled animals? Yep, I can see that’s not so nice. Food sacrificed to idols? Standard divine jealousy. Sexual immorality? Begging the question: what’s moral? But blood? How the hell can you abstain from blood? Given that this was obviously written by some unknown person, it’s hard to see what this could be about. Is it just to sound dramatic? Or some primitive fear of vampires? Whatever the origins, the phrase is taken seriously by Jehovah’s Witnesses, who will regularly refuse blood transfusions in hospital operations.

Obviously, this is completely demented. But it’s too stupid, and just makes me sad – no rational brain comes to this conclusion without years of brainwashing, and it’s hard to feel anything but compassion for people who are taken in by it.

Of course, parents who demand their children not receive blood transfusions can go to hell. I may feel sorry for the parents, but it’s unquestionable child abuse: there is no other option than to take the decision away from them, and thankfully the state can and does override parents in life or death situations. Compassionately unwavering rationality is the only solution in such cases.

I don’t know what, if anything, should be done about adults who make a decision to die rather than receive blood. I’m all for adults being able to make their own decisions – if you want to believe the world’s going to end soon and tell me about it at every opportunity, sure, whatever – but when it’s a life or death situation I waver. There are possibly grounds for intervention on the basis of a lack of sanity: none of us would see any problem with forcibly pulling someone back from jumping off a bridge – why should claiming ‘religious privilege’ make any difference? I suppose the argument is the slippery slope, but I don’t see the issue with intervening in life or death situations. But, in a situation like this, what of the rights of the children? The BBC reports that:

a young woman in Dublin lost a lot of blood after giving birth to a healthy baby a year ago. A Jehovah’s Witness, she too refused a transfusion.

But an emergency ruling permitted the hospital to carry out the procedure, arguing that the right of the newborn baby to have a family life overruled the mother’s right to refuse treatment.

It’s a messy precedent, but I don’t have a problem with that.

I don’t have any theoretical problem with the NHS making minor concessions for religious believers, but in practice it simply won’t work: there’s no logical difference between the small stuff and the life/death decisions, and it will only cause problems. Medicine has to be secular if state-approved death-by-cult is to be avoided.

  1. the story of the Book of Abraham is entertaining, and Julia Sweeney has a great introduction to the Church’s overtly racist overtones in ‘Letting Go of God’ []